Students on St. Michael's College School campus. Photo by Michael Swan

Editorial: Probe beyond school

  • November 21, 2018

Following reports of hideous conduct at St. Michael’s College School the administration acted swiftly to expel eight students and establish an independent review to examine how such shame could darken the corridors of the renowned all-boys Catholic school.

These responses are appropriate but, as too often is the case, they come only after the damage has been done. 

Of course, group violence warrants expulsions and arrests, and a third-party examination of the school’s “traditions, rituals and social practices” is prudent, although if there are failings in these areas it is difficult to understand why they weren’t identified and corrected long ago. According to the school’s web site, almost half of St. Michael’s teachers graduated from the school. So there is no shortage of authorities on the school’s culture and how school values have been upheld (or not) over the years.

The school already has a comprehensive anti-bullying policy that makes emphatically clear that any type of abusive behaviour is unacceptable and will be investigated swiftly, with penalties ranging from detention to suspension to expulsion to calling in the police. When the school’s principal became aware that students had been assaulted, he followed that protocol. Without delay, he spoke to the alleged victims, the alleged abusers, the parents of all involved and, after swiftly expelling eight students, he handed over evidence to the police. 

Where the policy failed is that it relegated the police to the last interaction in the chain of events. In retrospect, the principal acknowledged he should have brought in the police sooner. But a one-day delay proved inconsequential to an investigation that led to the arrests of six minors who face assault and sexual assault charges.

The arrests have put the school on trial. Minors can’t be named, but a 166-year old institution at the heart of Toronto’s Catholic history and significant in the city’s overall story is an easy target. But more than just examine any failings at St. Michael’s, these disgraceful events should motivate a broader reflection on a permissive, egocentric culture that too often rejects civility, restraint, discretion and compassion. 

By all means, investigate the St. Michael’s environment and fix whatever is broken, but don’t pretend the type of conduct that created teenaged victims was learned solely at school, or even predominantly there. Young people are bombarded with media messaging that encourages many types of violent and debasing behaviour. And they carry hand-held devices that can bring momentary fame by recording anti-social acts and posting them instantly for a wide audience.

As much as the culture of one school should go under a microscope, so too should wider society review and remedy the failings of a culture that has devalued decency, morality, boundaries and each other. Start at St. Michael’s but don’t stop there.

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